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WH Auden

W. H. Auden was an influential and important figure in both British and American poetry throughout the 20th century. He is credited for his innovation of poetic form and style as well as for his role as a prominent LGBT poet. 

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W. H. Auden was an influential and important figure in both British and American poetry throughout the 20th century. He is credited for his innovation of poetic form and style as well as for his role as a prominent LGBT poet.

W. H. Auden's Biography

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York in 1907. The son of a physician and a missionary nurse, he was the youngest of three sons. The Auden family were minor gentry (people of high social standing, just below nobility). Both of WH Auden's grandfathers were clergymen, and the poet grew up around a strong Church of England and Roman-Catholic tradition.

In 1908 the Auden family moved to Birmingham. At 13, Auden began his education at Gresham's School in Norfolk, where he would remain until 1925. Auden next attended Christ Church College at Oxford University. Here he studied English Literature and was introduced to Old English texts by author JRR Tolkien (writer of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy).

While at Oxford, Auden befriended other writers and poets such as Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis. During the 1930s, they would be referred to as the Auden Group or MacSpaunday by the press. Auden was also reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood, a fellow writer. Isherwood and Auden began a sporadic sexual relationship and would go on to collaborate on a series of plays.

W. H. Auden in Europe (1928-1939)

After graduating from Oxford, Auden went to Berlin. While there, Spender (Auden's friend and contemporary) privately published a collection of Auden's work. This collection is known as Poems (1928). Two years later, this collection would be published commercially by T.S. Eliot for Faber & Faber. Following this, he spent five years working as a schoolteacher across Britain.

In 1935, Auden married Erika Mann, a lesbian and novelist from Germany. They entered into a marriage of convenience when it became apparent that the Nazis were trying to strip Mann of her German citizenship.

From 1935 to 1939, Auden spent his time working as a lecturer and essayist. He also began travelling across Europe and Asia with other writers. In 1936, he and Louis MacNeice traveled to Iceland, completing the travel book Letters from Iceland (1937).

Auden also travelled to China (in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War) with Christopher Isherwood, writing the book Journey to a War (1938). He visited Brussels and Spain during the Spanish Civil War, also around this time. These travels would deeply affect Auden's politics and in turn, his writing.

W. H. Auden in America (1939-1972)

Following their trip to China, Auden and Isherwood moved to New York. It was here that Auden met his long-time companion Chester Kalman. Auden would go on to dedicate both his collections of poetry to the two men.

From 1940 to 1941, Auden lived in the February House with other writers. This house became a centre for artistic life in New York. While there, Auden regained his faith, joining the Episcopal Church. It was here in 1940 that he would release his poetry collection, Another Time.

When World War II began in 1939, Auden told the British Embassy that he would return to the UK, but that due to his age he would only have to enlist if necessary. In 1942, he was drafted by the US army but was dismissed on medical grounds. Instead of fighting, he spent most of the war teaching.

In mid-1945, Auden worked for the US Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany. Like his trip to Spain, this event had a deep impact on Auden and his work. Auden's trips to war-torn countries (Spain, China, and Germany) influenced how he wrote about death and totalitarianism in his future works.

In 1956, Oxford offered him a position teaching poetry, for which he would give three lectures a year. This allowed Auden to spend winter in New York and summer in Europe, but in 1972, he began to spend his winters in a cottage offered to him by Oxford.

W. H. Auden's Death

WH Auden died in 1972 at the Hotel Altenburger in Austria, aged 66. The poet died of congestive heart failure.

W. H. Auden's Poems

Let's take a look at W. H. Auden's major poems: 'Musée des beaux Arts' and 'Funeral Blues'.

'Musée des beaux Arts' (1938)

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster;

WH Auden wrote this poem during his trip to Belgium in 1938. The poem was published in his 1940 poetry collection. While in Belgium, he visited the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, where he was inspired by a painting entitled The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brugel the Elder, which depicts the mythical fall of Icarus, a famous story from Greek mythology.

This is an ekphrastic poem, in which the speaker comments on art. When reading this poem, it is important to remember Auden's experiences in Spain and China. On both trips, he experienced violence and the desensitized attitude that people had towards it.

These experiences impacted the way that Auden wrote about death and suffering in his work. This is represented within this poem. The figures also display an unnoticing (or uncaring) attitude towards Icarus as he drowns.

'Funeral Blues' (1936)

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

This piece was famously used in Richard Curtis' 1994 film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. The poem was initially written in 1936 as a satire of mourning. However, in 1938 it was rewritten for a cabaret singer named Hedli Anderson. This is the version we know today. Auden changed the final three stanzas in order to change the tone of the poem to be more sincere. The non-satirical version was published in 1940 in the collection Another Time.

In this elegiac poem, Auden uses the traditional funeral practices to relate the speaker's grief to the readers. Common instructions for a funeral become pleas for the world and time to stop and grieve the death with the speaker. Themes of love and death are apparent in this poem.

Themes in W. H. Auden's Poems

Themes such as love, death, and wars are present in many of W. H. Auden's poems.

Love

Many of Auden's poems explore love in different ways, yet each time there is an undercurrent of sadness. This is demonstrated in poems such as 'Funeral Blues' and 'Are You There?'. A key feature of Auden's poetry is how he marries the themes of love and sorrow together.

W. H. Auden's poems about love

  • 'Funeral Blues' (1936)

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

  • 'Are you there?' (1963)

Each lover has some theory of his ownAbout the difference between the acheOf being with his love, and being alone:

  • 'As I Walked One Evening' (1936)

I'll love you, dear, I'll love you Till China and Africa meet,

  • 'Lullaby' (1937)

Nights of insult let you passWatched by every human love.

Death

Death is also a common theme in Auden's work. This is seen in its inclusion in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). WH Auden lived through both world wars, as well as numerous other conflicts, and it is clear that this had an effect on his writing. Auden subverts the typical expectations for this theme.

W. H. Auden's poems about death

  • 'Funeral Blues' (1936)

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;For nothing now can ever come to any good.

...the expensive delicate ship that must have seenSomething amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The pillar dug from the desert recorded the sack of the city. All the agent said as he collapsed was, “Sorry! They got me!”

Wars

This theme is prevalent in Auden's work and is typically paired with the theme of death. Auden lived through many wars during his lifetime and was even present during two wars in Spain and China. This had a significant impact on his life, and in turn his poetry, as it allowed him to see what caused war and how it affected everyday citizens.

Auden's poetry differed from his contemporaries (many of whom focused on the conflict itself, sometimes glorifying this), as he also wrote about the systems of government that caused these wars. Many of Auden's war poems concentrated on totalitarianism and authoritarian governments, which he combined with allusions to Greek and Roman history. Auden's portrayal of the causes and impacts of war set him apart from many other poets for this reason.

W. H. Auden's poems about war

  • 'September 1, 1939' (1939)

What all schoolchildren learn,Those to whom evil is doneDo evil in return.

  • 'The Shield of Achilles' (1952)

A million eyes, a million boots in line,Without expression, waiting for a sign.

  • 'In the Praise of Limestone' (1948)

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at timesArm in arm, but never, thank God, in step;

W. H. Auden - Key takeaways

    • WH Auden was an Anglo-American poet and author, born in 1907.

    • His work was influenced by his travels across Europe, Asia, and America, especially during times of conflict.

    • Some of his most famous poems include 'Funeral Blues', 'Musée des Beaux-Arts', and 'September 1, 1939'.

    • He wrote about themes of love, death, and war.

    • He died in 1973 of congestive heart failure.

Frequently Asked Questions about WH Auden

W.H Auden died in 1973 in Austria of congestive heart failure. 

W.H Auden was an Anglo-American poet and essayist. He is commonly regarded as one of the most important figures in British literature from the twentieth century. 

The poem was initially written in 1936 as a satire of mourning. However, in 1938 it was rewritten for a cabaret singer named Hedli Anderson - which is the version we know today. The non-satirical version was published in 1940. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Where was Auden born?

When was Auden born? 

Which writer taught Auden while he attended university?

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